Will travel for tulips – Day 2 – WWI Tour of Northern Belgium
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
“In Flanders Fields” – John McCrae
The day started cold, with a brisk walk through the Brussels Midi Farmer’s Market, to the meeting point for the tour.
I fell asleep on the coach as we headed out from Brussels to the northern section of Belgium most scarred by the war. Puttering out past Bruges, the landscape flattened out and slowly revealed the greening fields as spring worked its magic on the farms. But no matter the season, the farms revealed the gleaming white tombstones of soldiers, the Dead, the ones who haven’t felt the dawn or seen a sunset in nearly a hundred years. Every few minutes we passed another graveyard. Another memorial. Another craggy scar on the landscape caused by a shell, a trench, or an explosion.
This was the landscape and the war I had not completely understood before signing up for this tour. I have studied WWII backwards, forwards and from so many angles, but WWI had not been much on my radar. In history classes, WWI was an ambiguity in American textbooks, sort of like, yeah, we got involved, yeah, we solved it, back pat, good on us. I really couldn’t describe why America had gotten involved with the war or how we had helped – or hindered. We spent more time on WWII, and I always had more of an interest in WWII.
After diving into Fall of Giants (Follett), the podcast “Blueprint for Armageddon” (Carlin), and various other resources available in my school’s library, I found myself at least more knowledgeable about the war, its causes, and its effects. Dan Carlin’s podcast plunked me down in the middle of it so effectively I woke up from nightmares of feeling mud creep up my boots in the trenches or having shells scream past me. I dreamt of the uniforms and the noises.
But nothing really smacks you in the face quite like plot after plot of cemeteries and the news that Belgian farmers still fear getting blown up by unexploded shells and gas canisters. It is hard to imagine the landscape ravaged by the war today, especially when it has been replanted and covered over. But the land is scarred. It hasn’t forgotten.
Vladslo, a German cemetery from WWI, sat quietly in the half-sunny morning with few people around to see it. The mournful statues at the opposite end of the cemetery are The Grieving Parents sculpture – the sculpture was created by the mother (Käthe Kollwitz) of a young man killed almost immediately at the start of the war. The sculpture looks over his grave, along with the graves of at least twenty men apiece, row by row. The stone crosses, low and squat to the ground, were placed in the cemetery to “break up” the monotony of the square stone grave markers. Besides the birds in the shady trees, there was only quiet.
We pulled up to the Canadian soldier monument outside Langemark, in memoriam of the Canadian soldiers who were victims of the first gas attacks in WWI. The brooding soldier looks down with his gun, ruminating on the effects of war. It’s a powerful monument for anyone to look upon. 2,000 soldiers lie buried somewhere nearby, shocked by the horrors of having the first waves of gas suck the life from them.
The PAX gate and memorial to the Flemish soldiers of the war were close by and visible from the bus as we drove by, both of which are hard to miss on the landscape. Memorials were everywhere as if challenging people to even try and forget about the past.
The nearby city of Ypres was a living memorial to the war. Completely destroyed by several battles, it has rebuilt an exact replica of itself. The Medieval Cloth Hall and its cathedrals were leveled by war, and instead of blasting it apart and ignoring its history, the people rebuilt its old structures. Only a few cornerstones remained, which is incredible considering everything looks as if its been there for ages.
In part of the restored medieval cloth hall is the In Flanders Fields Museum. We only had an hour or so to visit, but it’s an indelible look at the history of Ypres through the war and also the landscape around it, including Essex Farm where John McCrae wrote his famous poem, “In Flanders Fields.” The gas masks, canisters and shells, and other war equipment were still being dug up in fields around the area. The storytelling at the museum was bar none – even younger children were fairly engaged with the exhibits.
Essex Farm Cemetery and Tyne Cot Cemetery provided two opportunities to walk through the fields, not full of poppies at this time of the year but full of gleaming white crosses. Crosses and headstones and artificial red poppies upon each row. The unknown soldiers, the soldiers from farthest territories, the soldiers who were barely old enough to shave – all buried together in land that had once seen them torn and bloodied. Both cemeteries were sobering reminders of a war a century old – and a war that seemed to have solved little when it came to 1939.
Suddenly, studying WWI poets in university for my degree felt like it had proper context instead of a classroom in the American Midwest. The more I travel and live out the literature I once read, the more I feel like kids would actually like books and history if they had the physical context of the story. Just look at how popular Harry Potter locations have become! I don’t expect that WWI poets would have a sudden cult millennial following from visiting northern Belgium, but the physical context, the landscape, and the stories all combined to make it more meaningful to have read Sassoon and Owens all those years ago.
Hill 60 and the Caterpillar Mine hole were also poignant reminders of war. If I couldn’t see the dents in the landscape before, they were startlingly clear now. The front lines of the war were practically on top of each other here. The holes and undulating landscape were where shells blasted into the ground. There was a bunker still in one piece there, a bunker that changed hands back and forth over the course of the war. At the Caterpillar Mine hole, the massive dent in the earth and a pond of water were sitting there as if it’d been there for centuries. The land rolled and dipped in unnatural hills – these were exploded shell dents. War reshaped the land of northern Belgium, and it’s not going to return to normal, not even a century later.
Our last and final stop took us back to Ypres to have dinner and to meet at the monumental Menin Gate to listen to the Last Post ceremony. I ventured around the Cloth Hall to listen to some ringing bells, soothed the long day away with some Belgian chocolate (an absolute must for any visit to Belgium), and had a local stew for dinner.
We gathered in a thick throng near the Menin Gate for the 8 PM Last Post bugle. Siegfried Sassoon called the gate a “sepulchre of crime” because he felt it glorified the horrible war where so many young men died in a completely preventable disaster. The Last Post Ceremony was observed in silence as a wreath was laid on either side of the monument as a memorial to those who had died in the war. The only time it wasn’t done was during the German occupation during WWII – but otherwise, it has been and always will be observed.
I don’t think I ever really understood the significance of anything to do with WWI until spending my day immersed in it. It was a long day, a reflective day, but it was well worth seeing all that we did. It led me to more questions and connections to the world we have today – and what I might be teaching in the future.